Sunday 17 March 2024

SWANSONG - Theatre Review

WHAT: Swansong
WHEN: 13 - 22 March 2024
WHERE: TW Explosives Factory
WRITTEN BY: Conor McDermottroe
DIRECTED BY: Greg Carroll
PERFORMED BY: Andre de Vanny

Andre de Vanny - photo supplied

The Irish have a long history of ... well, everything. The recurring cultural themes which come out of that tiny nation are poverty, violence, and emotional depths deeper than the Mariana Trench. The women are unbreakable and the men cry behind their flailing fists. From this tradition springs Conor McDermottroe's play Swansong, enjoying a third run at Theatre Works - following hit seasons in 2018 and 2019.

Swansong is the (quite typical) story of a young Irish lad growing up poor in the western port of Sligo. Sligo has a long history of poverty and was one of the ports the famine ships (or coffin ships) used to transport Irish to the Americas in the 19th century during the Potato Famine. Around 30,000 Irish left from the Sligo port and McDermottroe draws on that history to frame the story of our beset Irish lad Occi (Andre de Vanny). The precise time in which the story is being told is not important. The play was written in 2005, but the film version which followed in 2009 sets the present as being around the 1970's. 

What we see in this production of Swansong is an open, black, end stage theatre without any kind of staging or cloths. Just some theatre lights hanging from the grid, on a boom, and a lonely Par Can in one corner on an H-stand. We know instantly this is stripped back theatre. Everything about this show is going to rest solely on the shoulders of the actor. It is an act of great bravery by director Greg Carroll. Or perhaps not, given he is working with perhaps one of our greatest actors of current times.

The lights come up and out strides de Vanny in a dated brown shirt, brown leather jacket, and faded blue trousers. He calls out a hearty hello in a lilting brogue and stares straight into the audience, but it is not us he is seeing. He is speaking to his favourite swan, Agnes, as he tosses bread to her and fights off the other swans coming in for a feed.

The term swansong refers to the myth that just before dying swans sing their most glorious songs. It is not true, but the myth has been a part of Western society since Aesop's fable (and probably earlier) The Swan and The Goose. Is this tale we are about to launch into going to be Occi's swan song? In truth we never find out. The film may be more explicit in this as it is in all aspects of the story. Is this Agnes's swan song? Again, we never find out. One of the criticisms I have about the script is the end doesn't resolve well, but maybe I am possibly just putting too much weight in the title.

As Occi watches Agnes swim away he sees the swans all heading for a wreck in the harbour. He tells us it is a coffin ship and speaks to the despair the starving people on the dock must have felt as they watched it sink. I have done a bit of research. I can't find any evidence of a coffin ship called the St Martin but the point is made well and the link of endless Irish poverty with the fated life of Occi is established. As we peer into those sepia toned stories of yesteryear, we move forward into Occi's troubled life.

Occi was born into poverty as an illegitimate son in a time when being a bastard was a literal thing and had appalling social consequences. Anyone who watched Game of Thrones knows what I mean. Occi (pronounced Okky) was christened Austen Byrnes, but McDermottroe has a lot of fun playing with his own history working in Australia to embed the chant 'Occi Occi Occi, Oy Oy Oy'. It is a fun bit of silliness and works well to draw in an Australian audience who might otherwise find themselves wondering why they should care about this young man's life.

Occi seems to have suffered some sort of neurodivergence after an unfortunate barrel roll down a very steep sand dune in his childhood. Young boys playing dangerous games which have tragic endings is another trope we all know well. You know things are not going to end well as soon as Occi starts setting up the story. There is no specific diagnoses but across the course of the show there is the inference he is not the brightest bulb on the block, and he definitely has anger management issues. 

He also finds himself, after one violent incident, in a psychiatric institution. Here is where he meets the love of his life, Mary. The title of the play also refers to the fact that swans mate for life. The fate of both Occi and Agnes are bound together in this sad tale.

Mary leaves the institution, and sometime later so does Occi but they don't meet up again immediately like some sort of Hollywood fantasy film. Occi struggles to manage his medication regime and has to resort to the dangerous work of deep-sea fishing to earn a living. A man dies and, in an attempt to avoid consequences Occi joins the army. It is at this point the story reveals a strangely ironic humour and eventually leads us back to where this 90 minute of theatre began.

A 90-minute one person show is not something I would usually even begin to enjoy. In the outrageously skilled hands of de Vanny though, the time marched on with pace, pathos and humour. There are sadly many fewer great actors on the stages in Melbourne than I would like to see. I am thinking people of the calibre of Syd Brisbane and Evelyn Krape. Andre de Vanny is one of those actors and you should not miss the chance to see a master of their craft in all their glory. This actor is the whole package - voice, body, intention. Occi is de Vanny, de Vanny is Occi. And Occi is sweet and pathetic and angry and violent and loving.

I am glad McDermottroe made the movie because the script doesn't fully realise all of its characters and ideas. It was written for himself as an acting vehicle and is now a legacy in the theatre canon for men to tell men's stories. Part of me hesitates over the play because it feeds into that age old male myth that a single insult is a socially acceptable trigger for violence. The play also lets Occi literally get away with murder, inferring his poverty is excuse and punishment enough. On the other hand, it holds back from becoming a ballad of violence and finds a way out so that we can like Occi at the end. I don't know if that is a good or bad thing...

Regardless, de Vanny's performance is a triumph and Carroll did the best thing a director can do with a performer of this calibre - stay out of his way. It does not surprise me that de Vanny has been able to take this to the world across the years. There will always be an audience for a story like this and de Vanny's performance is a masterclass in acting.

5 Stars.

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